Summary: A church can compromise itself out of existence and find itself at war against God.
Unto the Church in Sardis, Write
Sardis was the fourth church to which Revelation was sent. It had at one time been a very powerful city, the capital of the Lydian empire. It was ruled by a man named Croesus whose wealth was the subject of the proverb “richer than Croesus. The city was built on top of a hill which could only be approached from one side which made it easy to defend. However, the ease of defense led to complacency. Because of the cliffs on three sides, they did not feel the need to carefully watch for the approach of invaders. The Persians under King Cyrus found a way to come into the back door of the city and took it from Croesus. Several centuries later it happened again. This time a small detachment of troops scaled the cliffs. The guards were asleep, and the city fell again.
At the time of the writing of Revelation, the city was dying. But it still appeared impressive. There was a large unfinished temple to Cybele, who was similar to Artemis and was supposed to bring the dead to life. There was a large gymnasium and library complex. There athletes could train in the nude of course, as the nude male body was the subject of worship. Sardis also had the largest synagogue found anywhere in the Roman world built in the middle of this complex which would seem odd, considering it was next to the gym. A small Christian church was found built in the middle of the unfinished temple of Cybele. We don’t know when the church was built in relation to the cessation of worship at the Pagan temple, but its location also seems odd.
Sardis was known for its wool industry and may have been where the dyeing of wool was first practiced. Trade guilds controlled the manufacturing of woolen garments and assured their quality.
Emperor worship was also practiced in Sardis. They lost out to Smyrna in being granted the privilege of erecting a temple to Caesar. We do not know the extent of the Emperor cult, though.
Exposition of the Text
In the messages to the other churches so far, Jesus commends them for something before dealing with the particular concerns. But he tears right in to the church at Sardis. The name of the city sounds like the precious stone, sardius, used in the high Priest’s breastplate and mentioned in chapter 4. But this church was no precious jewel.
Jesus refers to the same seven stars in His right hand that he also applies to the church of Ephesus. Like the Ephesians, the church at Sardis needs to be reminded that Jesus has power over the churches to protect and to punish. In Ephesus, this was coupled with His walking among the seven candlesticks as a priests trimming the lamps that they might burn more rightly. Here, Jesus reminds the church of Sardis that He has the seven spirits of God also, which most see as a reference to the Holy Spirit. However, the seven spirits might also refer to the spiritual life of the seven congregations in addition. Did this church lack the fruit of the Holy Spirit?
Like the city itself, the church was living on its past reputation. And like the city of Sardis, the church for all its impressive appearance was dying. In fact, Jesus calls them dead. From this we get the impression that on the surface, the church was active and ministering. But Jesus knew better. He commands them to be watchful and to strengthen their defenses. This is a challenge to the church which was similar to Yahweh’s challenge to Israel in the Old Testament: “Prepare to meet your God (in battle)”. This was an open threat. They were not going to be facing Cyrus the Persian or the Greek general Antiochus. It was Jesus Himself who would come suddenly and take down the church. It is almost as though Jesus is saying “Go ahead and post your guard. Go ahead and strengthen your defenses. What good is that going to do if you are fighting against me?” The other choice the church would have is to recognize the folly of fighting against God and come out to Him.
When the Babylonian army came against Jerusalem, the city did all they could do to withstand the siege. However, the prophet Jerimiah told them that it was useless to resist. Instead, he commanded those who wished to save their lives to come out of the city and surrender to the Babylonians. Those who resisted Jeremiah’s counsel were resisting the LORD at the peril of their own lives. If this church was to live and not die, it needed to come out to Jesus and surrender to Him.